Saturday, May 31, 2008

Book Review: A Diet of Treacle by Lawrence Block

It’s a rare crime novel that sends the reader to a dictionary just to learn the definition of a title word. That’s what I had to do for “treacle” in Lawrence Block's A Diet of Treacle. Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree. I hold both and didn’t’ know that word. Go figure. Now, I do. It’s an odd word, evoking fantastical things and people, not criminals and guns. Sure enough, the quote is from Alice in Wonderland. One word of advice: when you finish the novel, go back and re-read the excerpt. You’ll have your ‘a-ha’ moment. I did.

The cover synopsis focuses on Anita Carlone, good girl who is bored with life so much so that she starts living with her new man, Joe Morelli, and his roommate/sugar daddy, shank. As the novel progresses, I kept wondering why the focus was on her. This was clearly a book with three protagonists. Each person has his or her own life view and that worldview influences his or her decisions and reactions.

Joe and Shank live in Greenwich Village circa 1960: pre-JFK, pre-Vietnam, pre Summer of Love, pre-counterculture. They both smoke weed that Shank sells, talk in beat lingo, and that’s about it. I have to praise the reader, Christian Conn, for employing different voices to bring these cats to life, Shank, especially. Conn gives Shank the nasally quality of a weasel. At first, I didn’t like the reading. Then, I began to fear what’s behind the voice. Block skillfully gives a little background on Shank early on so that each subsequent scene has some underlining tension to it.

As the story progresses, I kept waiting for the murder the cover blurb (“She went looking for thrills…and found murder”) promised. It finally arrived at, of course, the most inopportune moment. One can guess what happens next. However, as their flight and hiding out continues, I kept wondering why Shank kept bothering to keep Joe and Anita around. Shank himself wonders why, too. Maybe it goes back to the quote. I couldn’t figure it out, but the quote ties directly into the last sentence.

I rewound the track a few times, listening to the last line over and over before I smiled. As I mentioned in my reviews for Money Shot and Kiss Her Good-bye, it’s a great book when the last sentence delivers a punch. This last sentence doesn’t deliver that kind of blow, but it’s a good one. It makes you pause and think, which is sometimes just as good as a punch in the gut.

What I Learned As A Writer: Cleverly chosen quotes can enhance the reader’s experience, perhaps even inform it ahead of time if the reader knows the source. It was pretty cool when I re-read the quote after finishing the book.

Second thing was chapter length. This audiobook was about four hours long, probably around 200 pages in the printed book. Block only had 11 chapters. I have written a little over 100 pages in my current novel…and I have 16 chapters. Perhaps I may be able to combine more than one scene into a single chapter, reducing the number of chapters. But I can’t help but wonder if the shorter chapters lengths are merely the result of our shrinking attention spans.

Third thing: Every book I have read this past month starts off strong, fast, and exciting. My second book starts that way. Perhaps I have learned something.


eejut said...

Hmmm a Block novel i haven't read.....

I've been reading nothing bit hardboiled for a few months straight now. The summers here and the sun is out, i need a 'holiday', i'm thinking of delving back into the desden files files. You ever read these?

Scott said...

No, I haven't. Are these the Jim Butcher novels?